In beer brewing, the techniques that you use to extract the sugar that the yeast turns into alcohol are very important. Sugar is pulled from malted grain by soaking it in hot water, which is called mashing. The temperature of the water, and the length of time the grain is soaked makes a very big difference in the amount of sugar extracted. The amount of sugar received is determined by measuring the density of the resulting water using a device called a hydrometer. The ratio of extracted sugar compared with the theoretical maximum amount of sugar is called efficiency and is usually somewhere around 75%.
In addition to getting the sugar out of the grain, soaking the grain can have other effects by breaking down various proteins which can effect the flavor, the amount of head, and other factors in the resulting beer. In order to get some of these secondary effects brewers can do multi-rest mashes where they soak the grains at different temperatures for different amount of time. If you want more homebrewing theory, check out Palmer's excellent book.
All of this is difficult to do in the real world when all you are armed with is a stove with a knob that, when turned, will eventually change the temperature of the 5 or more gallons of water and grain. Basically, it turns into doing a kind of human-powered PID controller, which is no fun at all.
Being an engineer, I thought that this definitely falls under the category of a task that a computer could do better than a human. I started doing some planning in my head about what would be required for some kind of computing device to control my stove (or other heating element) so that I could set an exact temperature and let the computer worry about keeping the beer at the temperature. It turns out that it's not hard since this kind of temperature control is used in industry all the time for many purposes besides mashing beer.
The auto mash temp control project was sitting solidly on the back burner in my brain when I saw that Sous Vide cookers were getting cheaper. I will spare you the details, but Sous Vide cooking is a method of cooking by putting food in a water bath that is kept at an exact temperature by a temperature controller.
If you replace the water with wort (unfermented beer) then this sounds exactly like what I wanted to control mash temperature. Sous Vide cookers operate in the same temperature range as typical mash temperatures, are generally made from food-safe materials, and are made to attach to the sides of standard cooking pots. All of these qualities make them ideal for use with a mash.
So I bought an Anova Sous Vide cooker and made a batch of beer, and the results were excellent. I made this Irish Dry Stout recipe, with a mash temperature of 152 degrees F for 90 minutes, and a 170 deg mash out for 10 minutes. In the end I got 75% efficiency, and I pretty much sat back and relaxed during the mash step instead of a typical batch where I have to watch the temperature like a hawk the whole time.
Footage of the mash and details and tips for using the Anova cooker with a mash are in the the video above, but the big takeaways are:
- The Anova cooker seems to work quite well for mashing, and I will definitely use it again.
- Only use the cooker for fine-tuning the mash temperature. For brute force heating use your stove burner. This is to avoid caramelizing any sugars to the Anova's heating cool which would make the Anova hard to clean and may effect the flavor of the beer.
- Use a grain bag. This keeps the grain from plugging up the innards of the Anova. Be careful about where you aim the output of the Anova's circulator such that the grain bad doesn't get pulled into the Anova's intakes.
- Carefully calculate batch size. The liquid level must fall within the Min and Max lines on the Anova and this can be tricky to hit correctly when using a large brew pot, so do your math ahead of time to get it right.
Disclaimer: I don't know if Anova recommends using their Sous Vide cooker in this way, so I can't be responsible for any damage to the Anova cooker, problems with the resulting beer, or any other issues or problems you might encounter.